Thursday, October 4, 2007

Young, Gifted, and Miserable

I wasn't exactly a socially gifted kid. Prior to starting school, there was one playmate other than my sister, and she was more Terry's friend than mine. I don't recall making any friends in kindergarten. I was overweight and crew cuts were out of style, even for six year olds. There might as well have been a big "L" branded on my forehead. I did, however, always get to be the grocer in our pretend store. I could make change.

In the summer of 1967. I remember finding a button on the ground that sparkled with 3-D reflective circles and said "Have a Ball." This I thought, was the coolest thing ever. My mother took it away. I asked what was wrong and she said, "Haven't you ever heard of a double-entendre?"

School for me was all about social embarrassment and standing out as a sort of a super nerd. I have two defining memories of first grade that capture the period nicely. The first is sitting in Sister Bernice's classroom at night awaiting our turn to go on for the Christmas play. I was stripped down to underwear, keenly aware of being fat. I had been cast as a plum pudding. I would wear a brown sack that resembled a bean bag chair and do a little plum pudding dance. But my mother had forgotten the tights that would complete the costume, and I was to wear the little girl's who sat next to me. She complained that I would stretch them out. My crying only added to the humiliation.

The other was the night that Sister Bernice called my parents to tell them I had attained a near perfect score on the Iowa Basic standardized test. My parents were thrilled. I was a genius, they said. Then my mother tickled me and wouldn't stop until I cried.

This evidence of high intelligence worked against me throughout grade school. My refusal to color within the lines was a major issue, as was my tendency to drift off in class.

Second grade was where it pretty much all went to shit. Mrs. Fahrendorf was on a mission, and there were numerous conferences with my mom. I didn't pay attention. My desk was messy. My penmanship was poor. Penmanship, in Catholic schools, is a very big deal. I was a voracious reader and skipped over all the little kid lit to stuff like encyclopedias and the Hardy Boys. I read the entire box of Agatha Christie paperbacks my mom kept in the basement.

I started to dread school, but home wasn't much better. My dad was gone most of the time to his new job that he hated with New York Life. I defeated him at chess when I was nine and it sent him into one of his red-faced tantrums. My mother was deeply unhappy, but beating my sister and I over small things always seemed to cheer her up. I was a bed wetter. This humiliation added morning beatings to the routine.

Ominously, I have no recollection of third grade at all. Not where the classroom was. Not the teachers name. Not her face. Nothing. By fourth grade, I was labeled as bright but lazy. Myself and a girl named Margaret were always the last ones standing for spelling bees, but my grades were low average and I was the last kid to memorize the multiplication tables.

That year, my parents borrowed money from my grandfather and bought an insurance agency in Madison, South Dakota, a small town about sixty miles out of Sioux Falls. My mother went to work along with my dad. She hadn't worked since she'd been a Conoco girl, pumping gas in shorts during the War. It seemed to agree with her. She was the secretary, but her real job was to try and get my OCD dad to his appointments on time. This was maybe a 50/50 proposition.

Summers and weekends, we'd make the trip to Madison with them. We'd hang out in the lobby and read and play, walk around the teeny downtown, or go to the park a few blocks away. There was a lot of sitting in the car waiting for our parents to complete sales visits. When school was in, we'd make our own dinners, watch TV, and go to bed. The freezer was stocked with Morton pot pies, Swanson TV dinners, and fish sticks. Mom and dad would arrive home anywhere between nine p.m. and two in the morning.

Money was desperate and family life was tense. My sister and I both had bank accounts in which we deposited part of our allowances and learned of the miracle of compound interest. Our parents zeroed these out and took the coins from our piggy banks as well. There were no apologies, and that was the end of our savings accounts.

By fifth and sixth grade, we started to go wild. We'd never had any real freedom before, so our newly unsupervised lives felt like a gift from heaven. We started inviting local teens in to drink, and would call Madison to hang up. If they answered, we'd know we had another hour.

My sister and I would take my mom's car on joyrides with our friends. I started to shoplift for fun several times a day. I eventually got caught, and they called my parents at work. No charges were filed. After that, I mostly stopped

By then it was the early seventies, and the counterculture was in full swing in Sioux Falls. My mother was a member of the Catholic Daughters of America, which blacklisted Jesus Christ Superstar over the Mary Magdalene heresy. I listened to it obsessively in my friends basement across the street and to this day can hear it clearly in my head from beginning to end.

We'd ride our bikes to the New World Rising head shop over by the K-Mart and I'd lay on the slanted floor of the black light room and look at the velvety colors of the posters. This was a time when even the K-Mart had a hippy shit section where you could get your incense and beaded curtains and lava lamps and such. But New World Rising had cooler art, bongs behind the counter, and smelled like sandalwood.

One poster of two elephants fucking read, "Don't switch Dicks in the middle of a screw. Vote Nixon in '72."

Smoking and drugs began in fifth grade or so. I learned that if you sprayed Pam cooking spray into a bread sack and inhaled, you would get an intense body-buzz and slip into a hallucinatory dream state. Glue and gasoline did the same thing, but Pam was our favorite.

One afternoon, my sister and I came home from school for lunch and started huffing Pam with some friends. I was laying on the kitchen table when she grabbed me by the hair, which made me want to kill her. She grabbed a knife, and I tried to knock it out of her hand. I laid open the side of my wrist down to the tendon. We called an ambulance, and I got ten stitches to close it up at the local clinic. I still have a horseshoe shaped scar.

I told the nurse I'd been washing dishes and a glass broke while my hand was inside of it. They sent in the social worker. Her huge and glacially blue eyes were magnified by her glasses. Those eyes became the whole room. She asked me to say what really happened.

"I was washing a glass when it broke. I told you."

I knew how to lie. You just stared right back and stuck to the story. Nothing to it.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two


Mark said...

I had a similar experience growing up with my parents and school, thanks for writing yours out. Where does the rage come from hmmm?

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